The Science Behind Packing for Hiking – What To Pack, Why and How

gili-lawa-hike-sunrise-labuan bajo indonesia flores

So basically I want to get you outdoors.

Go for a hike, and experience the beauty of nature. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, as soon as you start to plan a little and look into doing something – you get swamped with information and the lack of gear makes the whole thing seem like too much trouble.

The hurdle of knowledge.

It’s a hard barrier to pass and  so I spoke with Phil, an avid outdoor guide and adventurer who wants for nothing except to get out and up (a mountain). Having lived his whole life in New Zealand, he has been exposed to the outdoors for as long as he can remember.

Of the mountains he has climbed, Mount Aspiring was the fondest memory he has had. At 3,033m high, they had to trek 20km long and 2000m high with 35kg packs to set up camp, while going through terrains of  steep snow and ice climbing. Other forms of hikes he has done in New Zealand includes trad climbing and snow climbing.

That inevitably led him into outdoor guiding, and even guiding on a glacier in New Zealand!

fox glacier hiking, new zealand

Here are his tried-and-tested, on-the-ground tips on what to pack for summer hiking and winter hiking, for every beginner, intermediate and advanced hiker.

 I’ll try to help you overcome the basics but there are so many opinions out there about what is best, so it’s important to remember to try things out and see how they turn out. Advice can be misguided but hindsight is 20/20. So, get out there and experience as much as possible (without being foolhardy).

There are a few safety guidelines that are key to follow when you head out on a trip to the outdoors (and plenty of other sites to learn them). Make sure you seek them out and keep safe in the outdoors.

Hiking Difficulty

I’ll split it up into a few different hiking difficulty levels:

  1. BEGINNER

Those who only want a taste of their first hiking experience for as cheap as possible and perhaps never again. #BASIC

  1. INTERMEDIATE

Some curious guys and girls who are looking at doing this whole hiking thing regularly a few weekends a year. With a few essential purchases. #HATEOFFICE

  1. ADVANCED

The few individuals who have been bitten by the hiking bug and subsequently vowed to never have spare cash again. #GEARCOMPLETESME

Without further ado, here’s our recommendations for hiking gear.  I’ll try give some overview and understanding as we go.

Disclaimer: I’ll include links to clothes and gears that are similar to what you would need, although there might be better options around. The links are just an indication of what I would expect.

Best Outdoor Brands for Serious Hikers

breast hill hiking girl, new zealand
Hiking in New Zealand

Major brands for serious hikers include:

  • Black Diamond
  • Outdoor Research
  • Arc’teryx
  • Mammut
  • Mountain Equipment
  • Rab
  • Patagonia

Hiking Clothing

gili-lawa-hike-viewpoint-girl-abs labuan bajo indonesia flores
Hiking in Flores, Indonesia

One most important rule: NO COTTON. EVER. STOP IT NOW. COTTON IS ROTTON.

UNDERWEAR INCLUDED.

Cotton not only absorbs a TON of moisture but also when it does, it loses almost all of its insulating properties; down to 10% in rough figures. If there is a cold wind then wet cotton will actually start taking heat from you, rather than protecting you.

This means – No jeans. No hoodies. No cotton t-shirts.

Clothes can be broken down into layers.

With the aim of creating a micro climate that is just for you, adding clothes creates layers of air in between the garments; the more layers, the warmer you will be.

The reason why you don’t want just a single big layer for warmth is that you’ll be constantly taking it off and putting it back on. With lots of smaller items, you can adjust accordingly.

Personally, I go with a base layer shirt and shorts, then when it gets cold I put a hat on first, then add a thin fleece jersey, then a wind breaker to stop the wind piercing through.

Then if it gets really cold, I’ll put on some thermal leggings and a puffer jacket too.

 If I start to get hot wearing all this – the first thing to come off is my hat. You want to only make big changes when you have too, this keeps you moving and saves a lot of time while hiking.

The saying “Be bold, start cold” saves about 5 minutes of everyone taking off their jumpers after only 20minutes of walking.

Base layers

winter-hiking-what-to-wear-for-females

Base layers are the first layers you put on. They are next to the skin, and used to wick sweat away from the body.

It is THE MOST IMPORTANT LAYER. 

Your body sweats while you hike. That moisture needs to be moved away from beside your skin. Water transfers heat better than air. If moisture is next to your skin, it loses heat faster. By the same principle, they can also keep you cooler when it’s hot.

TIP: Singlets are a great resource too (not just shirts). Combine it with leggings to be really toasty. I do this all the time, even in the office, and it works out great for the winter months!

Material for base layers

There are two main materials for base layers: merino and synthetic.

Merino is made from merino wool. It has less odour (you can wear the same piece the whole trip without it smelling), but it takes a bit longer to dry out.

It’s more expensive, but because you don’t need to change each day, you only need to buy one. Yet, it doesn’t last as long as synthetic – maybe around 3 – 4 years.

I’ve found that a lot of people refer to merino as a miracle fabric for the outdoors. It’s not. It gets soaked with sweat and any wind will cut right through you.

I also find that the fabric goes all rough and frayed after a few months of use.

Synthetic is made from a mixture of fibres such as nylon, polyester, or a polyester blend. Very quick-drying, so synthetic better for hotter temperatures where you know you will sweat a lot.

They are very cheap and last upwards of 5 years if you don’t mind a few holes. In my experience, they tend to smell a bit after a big day out, but they do dry out nicely when worn in a sleeping bag. Thus, you generally want to bring a few with you if you are doing multi-day hiking.

They are worth having for everything in my opinion – running in winter? Cold in the office? No gym clothes left? They are just a good can-do item.

For Beginner Hikers

TOP: If you’re heading into a warm environment then you can get away with not buying anything, just make sure you find something that’s quick-drying

SHOP MAN / SHOP WOMAN

BOTTOM: Wear running shorts, and avoid wearing your active wear pants for more than a few days as yeast issues can be had.  

SHOP RUNNING SHORTS

NOTE: If you’re buying online, make sure that there is no cotton in the blend. Even if it says quick-drying and moisture-wicking, cotton it is still bad for the outdoors.

For Intermediate Hikers

TOP: Here I would recommend getting 3 pairs of synthetic tops (mens womans). They will last for years, come quite cheap and you’ll have enough to change throughout the trip.

SHOP MAN/ SHOP WOMAN

Not to mention if it gets cold, then you can wear a few at a time and increase the warmth. This was my go-to for years and If I’m heading away for a weekend, or even just for a run during the colder months, these are really handy.

BOTTOM: If it’s going to be cold then get 2 pairs of synthetic leggings. Otherwise you can buy some hiking shorts (typically nylon) with pockets.

SHOP MAN / SHOP WOMAN

NOTE: I usually go for as bright and flamboyant as possible, so it makes the trip photos extra fun – something like this.

For Advanced Hikers

For the big spenders, or those going on more than weekend missions, you’ll want merino. You can get away with wearing the same piece of clothing the whole trip, and sleeping in them at night will dry it out for the next day (just don’t get your sleeping bag too wet).

I’ve found merino to be very comfortable and use them often as a relaxing weekend shirt too when it’s not hot out.

TOP: Merino.

SHOP MAN / SHOP WOMAN

BOTTOM: Merino. 

SHOP MAN / SHOP WOMAN

Spending big on some merino underwear is one of the best purchases I’ve ever made in my outdoor clothing kit. Comfort level is through the roof. Moisture wicking. Controls odour.

Small item – big difference.

SHOP MAN / SHOP WOMAN

Mid Layers 

winter-hiking-what-to-wear-for-females

Mid layers add warmth – add it on if it’s cold or take it off before heading up a hill to avoid overheating. The choice here is – how warm do you want to go?

For a general extra layer, I will usually always have a light fleece top with me. This is key for when the temperature dips just a little, or if I’m just getting started in the morning.

I tend to go with Power Grid fleece from Earth Sea Sky – pretty much squares of fleece in the inner fabric to create wee ‘pockets’ of air. I find this to be a layer I take everywhere with me, just because it’s so darn light, warm and packable.

If the weather looks a bit frosty, I might take a thicker fleece as well.

Puffer jackets can either be down or synthetic insulation. Down is lighter, warmer, compacts smaller, and lasts over the years. Synthetic is heavier, bulkier, and after squishing into tiny hiking bags, it tends to die after a few years. The reason why synthetic is still a good investment is that when it gets wet, it still is warm, whereas down won’t be.

Most people will get by with just a normal puffer jacket, nothing fancy. If you find that they are on the expensive side, then look in to second-hand stores. My first few were from there and they kept me nice and toasty.

For Beginner Hikers

TOP: Buy a cheap fleece or two. Hoodies are useless as they are mostly all cotton. A city winter jacket might get you by but it will take up half your bag, and if it gets wet won’t be much use.

SHOP MAN / SHOP WOMAN

A cheap down jacket would be better.

SHOP MAN / SHOP WOMAN

BOTTOM: Some winter running pants that’s made of nylon for a wind breaker.

For Intermediate Hikers

TOP: Buy one good quality fleece and then a cheap down jacket. Solid combination.

SHOP MAN / SHOP WOMAN
SHOP MAN / SHOP WOMAN

BOTTOM: some light weight hiking pants that will keep out the wind, provide a tiny bit of rain resistance, and be great for casual wear.

For Advanced Hikers

TOP: Get a really nice lightweight power grid fleece. It’s super light and the way it’s put together is crazy warm. These come in handy for just about everything if you live in a cold environment like New Zealand where a chilly breeze will come out of nowhere.

SHOP MAN / SHOP WOMAN

Then get a light weight down jacket that packs into thin air.

SHOP MAN / SHOP WOMAN

Finally complete it with a full on winter down jacket for the cheap price of an arm and a leg – great for down times in the snowy mountains like belaying.

SHOP MAN / SHOP WOMAN

BOTTOM: Some lightweight hiking pants.

SHOP MAN / SHOP WOMAN

If you don’t have a partner (and hence have extra cash), a pair of puffer pants would fit the bill nicely for relaxing around your camp in cold temperatures.

SHOP MAN / SHOP WOMAN

Rainwear

SUP paddleboard rainbow, Loch lomond, scotland itinerary
Rainbow behind Phil!

Shells (Rainwear) would be divided into two types: softshells and hardshells.

Softshells are more of a protective layer from the wind and light rain but they aren’t totally waterproof. The good thing is that the material is more breathable and more sweat can get out.

You don’t need a softshell unless you are heading into a cold and dry environment.

I’ve found my softshell to be useful only in the mountains when there is cold wind around and I’m working hard. That orto stand out in social situations as being an outdoorsy type; a nice banner for which to find other kindred souls.

That being said, I love soft shell pants, especially the stretchy kind. It’s great for wearing just everywhere – so darn comfortable.

Hardshells on the other hand are fully waterproof and hence can keep out the days when there is a very leaky sky. Most outdoor jackets will be lined with some variant of Gore-Tex, which keeps the rain out and lets the sweat out too. Very important.

 If you plan to be hiking in a place with monsoons then PVC jackets will be 100% waterproof. These are the type that the road workers will be wearing all day. However, they also keep 100% of your sweat inside, so think on that for good measure.

Hardshell pants are bloody fantastic, as they pack small and keep such a large part of your body out of the rain + wind.

Both hardshells and softshells will have a coating of DWR (durable water repellence) on them. Essentially, it’s a fluorinated spray coating that makes the rain bead and splash off so nicely. With wear and time, the water repellent layer will fade off slowly.

You can then refresh the DWR layer by ironing it on a middle heat. If the DWR layer is totally gone, give the jacket a good wash and re-spray some DWR back on it.

It’s a very good idea to wash your jackets every couple of months to stop the oils on your skin from destroying the membrane of the jacket. Also, because you live with your own smell all the time, you won’t notice if it does reek.

For Beginner Hikers

TOP: A simple nylon coat and pants will get you by for a short trip with not much rain – they will get wet quickly but at least it will keep the wind from making you very cold which is the essential thing.

SHOP MAN / SHOP WOMAN

NOTE: It won’t keep you dry in a heavy rain.

BOTTOM: Like this.

For Intermediate Hikers

Top – Invest in a Gore-Tex lined coat, or similar. It doesn’t have to have anything fancy. One thing to note is that if you want to use the pockets during hiking, then the pockets need to be chest height. Vents are also good but not needed. (like this)

Bottom – Your best bet is some Gore-Tex pants that have a full zipper up the side of the pant-leg, so that they are easy to take off and put on over your hiking boots as and when there is rain. (like this)

For Advanced Hikers

TOP – Depending on your main activity, a light packable jacket works for quick missions, like a runners’ style. (like this)

A heavy set jacket that covers down to your knees for hiking and bush-bashing (like this). A light articulated jacket to move around in for alpine adventures. (like this)

BOTTOM – one good pair of Gore-Tex pants will do for everything. Just make sure that they have a full length zip up the side and won’t fall down when it’s heavy with water. (Like these)

Accessories

hiking-gear-what-to-wear-to-hike-bunt-umbrella

Hats

A lot of heat is lost from your head as you walk and sleep so it’s important to have a good warm fleece hat, preferably one with wind-proofing.

This is my knight in shining armour, always there when I need it to provide extra warmth – and first thing to come off to cool myself down. Totally underrated, but I swear by this.

A really good idea is a sunhat that can also cover your neck and ears. This is especially important if you are in/around snow on a sunny day. My go-to is this.

Buffs + scarves are great for trapping the air escaping from your torso and also protect your nose in cold winds. Buffs also come in handy during the summer as sun protection.

Gloves

Gloves are only really necessary if you’re heading somewhere where it’s going to get down to 10C or below at night, or if there is cold wind where you are walking and you don’t have pockets.

Thin polypropylene gloves are great. Windproof fleece would be the next option, and finally some down/ synthetic gloves with waterproofing for if you’re in wet conditions. 

Socks

Wool is king when it comes to socks, with big, thick socks being the best.

Make sure your feet still fit your boots after putting those socks on as your feet will swell up when you walk.

How to deal with sore foot blisters?

The most common place that a blister forms is the back of the heel.

It’s a good idea to wear two pairs of thinner wool socks if you have new boots or know that your boots will rub in some places. If you’re struggling with foot blisters, put on two pairs of socks, then some legging hose under a thick sock keeps you from getting blisters too. Looks great too… (Almost.)

A handy hint is to carry some strapping tape in your pack for if you notice hot spots developing on your feet. It’s important to fix it right away by taking off boots and socks, then covering the skin where the hot spot is happening. This saves your feet and you from being in a lot of pain further down the track.

There have been many times when I kept putting it off and at the end of the day, I would take off my boots to big blisters on my heels. All because I chose to let them pop naturally. Putting my feet into my shoes the next day would be agony. Don’t make my mistakes yours.

Umbrellas

hiking gear, what to wear to hike, blunt umbrella

I am a big fan of hiking with a tough yet small umbrella. It’s light, and keeps the rain from my face – which is particularly useful if you have glasses. I have stood under waterfalls with my umbrella and also hiked through snow storms.

I am loyal to my Blunt umbrella which I would highly recommend to everyone!

Footwear

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One of the most crucial elements for hiking and outdoor play. Gym shoes will lack grip, support, and are hard to clean when they get dirty. So, they are best left for really easy trails on gravel. Running trail shoes are great for a lot of situations, the traction is key for mud/dirt/wet rocks. Hiking boots

A good guide for what footwear to use to consider is:

  • How heavy is your pack?
  • What are the trail conditions like?

Light bag – easy trail (concrete and gravel): Any shoe that’s not high heels and has some cushioning, but gym shoes would be best. 

SHOP SHOE

Light bag – bad trail (muddy and rocky): Trail shoes with good tread. The important thing is that you have good tread for when it gets muddy, and that they won’t slip on wet rocks. You don’t have any ankle protection in these so you need to make sure that you are careful where you place our feet.

SHOP SHOE

Just look at that tread!

Heavy bag – easy trail: Gym shoes are fine but if there are muddy patches then trail shoes are better. A shoe like the above works just as well.

Heavy bag – hard trail: Hiking boots that protect the ankles and have good tread (and hence, grip). Look at investing in a pair of good quality boots. Synthetic Gore-Tex boots or boots that are leather and have Gore-Tex are on the cheaper side and won’t last as long as full leather, but perform well. My pair have lasted a good 5 years so far and going strong.)

SHOP BOOTS

Heavy bag – extra hard trail (snow and mountains): hiking boots with a full shank with good tread and ankle protection. This means no flex in the sole. Bonus if it has crampon-suitable heels and toes, or insulation.  

SHOP BOOTS

These are a fantastic all-round alpine boots.

Be sure to take care of your boots by cleaning them after hikes and oiling them to keep the leather healthy.

If you choose a synthetic material boot, you won’t need to look after the shoe as much. However, it won’t last as long as a good leather boot.


This was a really comprehensive post that we spent months working on. I’ve learned a lot from writing this post that I never knew before!

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